THE UNEXPECTED INHERITANCE OF INSPECTOR CHOPRA by VASEEM KHAN

There are some books about India that are just so perfect that reading them is a total & utter joy.

“The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra” is one such book.Vaseem Khan’s novel is an absolute delightful and is so, well, quintessentially Indian, in that it manages to combine gritty police work with a baby elephant, and you don’t even question it for a moment.  Those defining co-existing elements of life in India – the horrors of poverty, the omni-present corruption, the heart-stopping sight of an elephant wandering down the street, the crowds, the noise – all of these find a home in this wonderful, whimsical, endearing novel.

The upright and honest Inspector Chopra has just retired from the Mumbai Police, on health grounds when, out of the blue, he inherits a baby elephant from his uncle.  Inspector Chopra lives in Mumbai with his wife Poppy, a woman he fell in love with the first time he saw her, back in the village, when she was just a teenager.

Inspector Chopra is not looking forward to retirement at all.  Police work has been his life and he dreads the thought of not working to make his beloved city of Mumbai a safer place.

The novel is as much about Mumbai, as it is about the mystery Inspector Chopra finds himself entangled in, despite retirement.

Mumbai is an ever present, noisy, always on-the-go, larger than life presence in the book.  If ever there was a love song to this greatest of Indian cities, it is here in this book about a middle aged cop and a baby elephant.

“Daredevil beggars slept on the ten-inch parapet of the airport flyover, oblivious to the fatal drop on one side and the hurtling traffic on the other.

This is what made Mumbaikers the greatest Indians in the land, Chopra felt.  This belief in their own invulnerability.

…he could not imagine living in a place without the noise and sheer energy that powered Mumbai at all times of the day or night.”

This description, below, of Mumbai in the middle of the night is powerful:

“The truck rumbled through the night-time city, past the trendy bars and the dhabas; past the sleeping beggars and the urchins; past the hand-cart wallah supine on their carts; past the ladies bars disgorging their woozy and satisfied clientele; past the call centres operating on foreign time; past the cows lying down by the side of the road; past the glittering pye-dogs prowling the empty streets, masters once again, if only for a short few hours, of their ancient dominion.”

Since this is a whodunit, I won’t spoil the plot by telling you too much about the good Inspector’s investigation, but suffice to say that in the current political climate in India (I live here, by the way) the exposure of corruption at the highest levels strikes a chilling chord.

But it is Baby Ganesh, the rather sad and traumatised elephant that Inspector Chopra inherits, who steals the show.

After the first monsoon downpour which floods the compound, poor little Ganesh is freezing, soaking, and frightened, so Inspector Chopra does the only thing he can – takes the baby elephant up to his apartment, much to the outrage of the battle-axe who likes to think she runs the building.

Poppy rises to the occasion, insisting that Ganesh can and will stay in their flat.  There is one scene that is too adorable, where, after giving the poor shivering creature a hot bath and a massage, they both settle down – Poppy on the sofa, Ganesh on a pile of quilts – to watch a Shah Rukh Khan movie on the telly, happily sharing a bag of banana chips.  A classic moment that makes you fall in love with Poppy.

Ganesh – well, I was already in love with him from the second we met him.

“And then something curious happened.  As the little calf continued to snuffle and sneeze, hunched down inside its quilts, the very picture of misery, Poppy felt her long-suppressed mothering instincts to the fore…suddenly she was overcome by a desire to nurse the baby elephant that her husband had seen fit to deposit inside her home.

“OK, young man,” she said determinedly, “first things first: let’s get you cleaned up.”

Inspector Chopra, despite retirement, is driven to investigate a killing which leads him further and further into the world of corrupt officials and big money. But, while he investigates one crime, he makes a discovery about an event from his own past. (No more, I promise, so as not to spoil your enjoyment.)

This is a great read.  Funny, endearing, and yet also a searing exposé of the seamier side of Mumbai.

This is the kind of book that, as you read, you know, you just know that Inspector Chopra & Ganesh are destined to make a great partnership, and that their relationship will endure – into many more books, one hopes.

I can’t wait to read the next book in the series, which is all ready and waiting.

If you would now like to order this delightful novel – you won’t regret it, pukka – just click on the link below.

THE ENGLISH SPY by Daniel Silva

Yes, indeed, I am still very immersed in the world of the master Israeli spy and assassin Gabriel Allon, and, as ever, am in awe of the amazingly topical plots and their totally unpredictable twists and turns, in the hands of the master, Daniel Silva.

Gabriel Allon and his world have been my non-stop summer reading and to my horror, I have only one book in the series left to read, and am already going into depression at the thought.  I started out in the early days of our brutal Delhi summer with Book 1, and have read them all, in order, finishing the excellent “The English Spy” just now, on a hot September afternoon here in Delhi.

I said just now that the plots are topical.  They are, of course. That goes without saying.  But Mr. Silva seems to be prescient, too, and it is this uncanny ability to have his pulse not only on the contemporary world scene but also almost see into the future, that makes his books so riveting.

“The English Spy” sees Gabriel Allon at work in Ireland, as he tries to defeat his old nemesis from earlier novels…but I really can’t tell you much more without being a complete spoil sport, so I won’t.

One of the leitmotifs that run through this totally absorbing and clever series is that of art.  Jewish Gabriel is an art restorer of world renown, one of the world’s top restorers of Christian art, often undertaking commissions directly for the Vatican and for the Catholic churches of his beloved Venice.  This unlikely pairing of violence and art, of Judaism and Catholicism, of killing and healing, is just one of the clever devices Mr. Silva uses to weave stories that draw you into them on so many different levels.

Gabriel is a hero like no other, one of fiction’s most decent, honourable men. He is modest, an Israeli who is not in the least bit religious.  A man who loves Europe and the world of churches and art and history.  A man who adores his drop-dead gorgeous wife, and who cherishes his first wife…oh dear, if anyone is reading this and doesn’t know the earlier books, I do hope I’m not spoiling things for you…

Gabriel is also, yet another contradiction in his psyche, a killer who has great compassion, as illustrated in his reaction when he sees a victim of a bomb attack:

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Nearly all of the major characters who form Gabriel’s world make an appearance in the novel, including the wonderful Ari Shamron, who assumes almost Biblical stature in this description:

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Sad to say, Israel and Israelis are often not the world’s favourite people, and so it is refreshing to be treated to the total decency and honesty and probity of Gabriel and his team.  Speaking personally, here in India, we usually meet the aggressive young Israelis who flock to places like Ladakh and Himachal, and are, sadly, very often rude and unfriendly.  Huge generalisation, I know, I know, but there were a couple of bruising encounters with hard-eyed unsmiling Israelis in Leh last time I was there.  Sad.

So, hopefully without sounding too naive, to immerse oneself in the world of Gabriel Allon, is to restore one’s faith in a country and its people.  Everyone in Gabriel’s ambit is passionate about Israel, but without being overtly religious.  The love for their country shines through, as does their commitment to making sure the world does not forget the horrors of the Holocaust.  The sights and sounds and light of Israel, the food and the wine and the sunsets, the dangers and the fear and the constant threats are just one of the many joys of these books.  And, as I said, they restore one’s view of the country and its people.

“How it works” THE HUSBAND – a Ladybird Book

For Christmas, I was given 2 of the brilliant Ladybird books for grown ups –  here’s one of the reviews – and so it was with great pleasure that I accepted a friend’s thoughtful gift for my husband when I was in London recently.

Though, actually, having read this handy manual “How it works The Husband” it is probably more useful for me, The Wife.

The mission statement of these grown up Ladybird books is worth revisiting – probably because, as grown ups, we have all completely forgotten reading this the first time round:

“This delightful book is the latest in the series of Ladybird books which have been specially planned to help grown-ups with the world about them.

The large clear script, the careful choice of words, the frequent repetition and the thoughtful matching of text with pictures all enable grown-ups to think they have taught themselves to cope. The subject of the book will greatly appeal to grown-ups.”

Couldn’t agree more.

And now let’s see what I have learned about how husbands work.

Well, I’ve learned this.

Nah, actually, knew it already…

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Ah yes.  All that reading about Real Things…

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I absolutely love the wholesome images in these grown up Ladybird books, that remind me SO much of my childhood reading, but now combined with the off-the-wall captions.

Like this gem:

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Love the pom-pom-poming older husband.  #justsaying.

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This extract, below, sums up perfectly the brilliant combo of images and oh-so-simple words and sentences, the hallmark of Ladybird books.

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You need this book, now don’t you?

Righty-ho, here we go –  order it right now (before you forget)

THE LADYBIRD BOOK OF MINDFULNESS

This was another Christmas present from my clever sister, who clearly knows her older sibling oh-so-well.  After tackling midlife crisis, I now have a brilliant Ladybird book to guide me through the tricky waters of mindfulness:

“Mindfulness is the skill of thinking you are doing something when you are doing nothing.”

(Ouch, Jane, is there a hidden message here?)

Love the skewering of our middle-aged pretensions:

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I also love (& humour me here, folks) the sheer Englishness of these books.

The dotty text, the wholesome illustrations, the deliberate throw-back to our childhood books, the tweaking of our nostalgia –  oh the whole thing is too clever and such light-hearted fun.

Meet my favourite mindful character…

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If you wish – mindfully of course – to buy this book, couldn’t be easier.

Just click on the link below.

THE LADYBIRD BOOK OF THE MID-LIFE CRISIS

What a brilliant Christmas present The Ladybird Book of The Mid-Life Crisis is, and one that shows how well my sister knows me 🙂

I laughed out loud reading this utterly brilliant spoof on the classic Ladybird Books, books published by Penguin Ladybird Books themselves.

In other words, this is authorised taking the mickey.

I don’t think I’ve looked at a Ladybird book in – what – 20 odd years, since my now adult children devoured them in their primary school days, pretty much the way I did as a child.  As a family, we all grew up on the wholesome Ladybird books.

Read the publisher’s mission statement :

“This delightful book is the latest in the series of Ladybird books which have been specially planned to help grown-ups with the world about them.

The large clear script, the careful choice of words, the frequent repetition and the thoughtful matching of text with pictures all enable grown-ups to think they have taught themselves to cope. The subject of the book will greatly appeal to grown-ups.”

What is so fab about these new grown-up books is that they look and feel exactly the same as the originals.  Only the content is, well, somewhat different.

Take the first page, for example :

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The cast of sad middle-aged folk in the book is hilarious, none more so than Nick:

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Great fun.

Funny trip down memory lane.

And if you were not lucky, as I was, to get one of these for Xmas, go on, be grown up about it and buy yourself one!

Just click on the link below:

And if you’ll excuse me, now I’m off to do some adult colouring, like Sally.

AARUSHI by Avirook Sen

Let me start this review by nailing my colours to the mast.

“Aarushi” is a brilliantly written, meticulously detailed, gripping piece of work, and should be read by every single person who cares about India and justice.

This is a book that should be made compulsory reading for every student of law, for every aspiring policeman or policewoman, and for every student of journalism.

For this book holds up a mirror to the first two professions, revealing their flaws and defects and, in parallel, the huge moral responsibility they both bear.

And any student of journalism should be proud to take a leaf out of Mr. Sen’s book –  his research and attention to detail are meticulous, his research is thorough, unbiased and clearly presented.

Reading Avirook Sen’s extraordinary book “Aarushi” is an emotional experience in so many ways. Reliving the horror of the murder of a 13 year old girl is traumatic, even for we the readers.  For anyone who was living in India at the time – May 2008 – the memory of the gruesome murder, the arrest of the child’s father, his release, then the subsequent arrest, trial and the shocking conviction of both parents for her murder –  all those memories are still surprisingly fresh, for this was a sensational case, which had every one of us gripped.

I remember blogging about the case, willing the parents to be innocent.

But the lurid details of wife swapping in Noida, the widely circulated theory that the 13 year old was having a consensual sexual relationship with a middle aged male servant, all of this was fodder to what passes for journalism here in India.

Sorry if that sounds harsh, but there you go.

We have a hysterical TV press at the best of times, and this cocktail of sex, murder, servants, wife swapping, golf clubs, locked doors, seemingly unemotional parents (that must prove they were guilty, right? No public hysteria was suspicious, right?)…oh, it was all too good for the TV ratings.  No matter that most of it was hearsay, unproven, salacious tidbits leaked by an irresponsible investigating team.

Don’t believe me?

Well, read this astonishing book, and you soon will.

In the first few pages of the book, we see the police at work.  It is a truly terrifying catalogue of incompetence, to put it mildly.  The words I would actually like to use would not make for polite reading.

Read this extract below, and pray that you never, ever, ever find yourself at the receiving end of such inept, unprofessional, insensitive “policing” :

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Mr. Sen writes in a clear, unbiased voice about the chaos and cacophony surrounding the trial of 2 bereaved parents, and though never taking an overt stand, you know where his sympathies lie.  With the dignified, grieving Talwars, rather than the servile, incompetent authorities.

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Unlike the TV anchors going after ratings (and did one of them really dip his hands in red paint to simulate blood on camera?) Mr. Sen attended all the court hearings, quietly interviewed as many of the protagonists as he could, and, in a hugely chilling end to the book, he re-visits and re-chats with the main players once the trial is over, and the Talwars are incarcerated.  Even in jail, bereaved, the Talwars remain dignified.

And if your blood hasn’t already boiled with the parade of self-serving, incompetent police, CBI and lawyers who were let loose on the Talwars, then the conclusion of this fine book will certainly make you angry.  And very, very scared for anyone fighting for justice.

Trust me.

The most frightening interview in the book is the one Mr. Sen has with Shyam Lal, the now retired judge who sentenced the Talwars, and promptly retired a few days after sentencing.

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The above is straight out of the realm of buffoonery.  But to be fair, not everyone can speak and write well in English, but why the system allows such a travesty as this is mystifying.

But it is the final moments of the book that should make you sit up and make you very angry:

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The only thing I still can’t quite comprehend, even after reading this fine book is this: why?

Why did 2 people have to bear the brunt not only of a personal tragedy of unimaginable horror, but also the full weight of a conniving, incompetent system?

Evidence was withheld, was blatantly tampered with, and yet no-one seemed to be in the least concerned.  The case of the purple pillow is so shocking that you keep wondering if you have somehow misunderstood the implications.  But no.  Evidence was tampered with.  And no-one other than the Talwars seems bothered.  Certainly not the investigative agencies.

If the Talwars had been politicians or industrial giants or CEOs or cricketers or Bollywood stars, you could (with perhaps some justification) claim such a travesty of justice to be a cover up or a vendetta – whatever was appropriate.

But these were 2 ordinary middle class people.  Professionals.  Educated.  Loving parents.  So why the massive all-encompassing travesty of justice?  It can’t surely all have been a self-serving cover-up, with everyone too scared to admit to their mistakes and failures?  So just bluff your way out and compound the situation?  Surely not?

But, terrifyingly, that seems to be the only conclusion.

If you haven’t already bought this book, then please do so now by clicking on one of the links.  You owe it to yourself.  And to the Talwars.

RUNNING AND LIVING by Rahul Salim Verghese

What a nice book this is, and written by such a nice, unassuming man, too.

In the interests of full disclosure, I know Rahul a little socially, and, of course, “professionally,” through the runs he organises in and around Delhi, where I live.

“Running and Living” is an easy book to read, in the sense that it is written in a chatty, relaxed style, almost as though you were sitting talking to the author himself.

A relatively late convert to running (but not as late as me, Rahul.  I beat you soundly on that score!) Rahul is one of the lucky people in this world who has followed his dream and his new-found passion.  After 25 years, he stepped calmly off the corporate treadmill, and headed straight for a different world.  The world of running.  He started a company “Running and living”, which uses running as a marketing platform for brands, and his company now organises many races around India.

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I read this book in one long, happy sitting, but it is the kind of book that you can dip in and out of – there are chapters about motivation, about the myriad health benefits of running, and also about Rahul’s own experiences, about which he is endearingly frank and honest about his failures.

The chapter detailing the Everest marathon is thrilling stuff.

There are quotations, motivational messages and –  yaay! –  a training plan for running a marathon.

I am a total, unconditional convert to running, but I am sure that any non-runners reading this will easily be persuaded to lace up their shoes and head out for that first, wonderful run.  Just read about the health benefits, and I guarantee you that you will be out there, running.

Why don’t you check all this out for yourself, and order this book now, by clicking on one of the links below:

Published just a few days ago, in summer 2015, the paperback costs Rs399.

THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN by Paula Hawkins

The eternal dilemma of reviewing a thriller.

How to tell the reader something meaningful about the story without spoiling things?  How to praise a book sufficiently without revealing the plot?

Because if ever there is a smashing read, it’s “The Girl on the Train” by Paula Hawkins, a brilliantly crafted book about what someone might (or might not) have seen, in a quick glimpse, from a suburban train.  This is just a fleeting moment, but one that will have ramifications that ripple outwards throughout the course of this dark, gripping story.

Rachel, an unhappy divorcee and a woman battling alcoholism, takes the 8.04 slow train to Euston every morning and from the opening page of the book, we are drawn straight into the world of stuffy trains and the dreary commute to London day after remorseless day:

“The train jolts and scrapes and screeches back into motion…and we trundle on towards London, moving at a brisk jogger’s pace.  Someone in the seat behind me gives a sigh of helpless irritation…”

Every day, as the 8.04 makes its slow way to Euston, Rachel looks out at the houses she passes :

“The train crawls along; it judders past…modest Victorian houses, their backs turned squarely to the tracks.  My head leaning against the carriage window, I watch these houses roll past me like a tracking shot in a film.  I see them as others do not; even their owners probably don’t see them from this perspective.  Twice a day, I am offered a view into other lives, just for a moment.”

It is something Rachel sees, just for a moment, that draws this troubled woman into the lives of the people she passes.  People she doesn’t know in real life, but around whom she has constructed a fantasy life.  Every morning, Rachel looks out for Jason & Jess –  she is sure they must have names like this – a couple she is fond of, from afar.  They seem to her to have the perfect life that she has lost.  Divorced from Tom, largely because of her alcoholism, she treasures her glimpses of what she imagines is the perfect marriage of the perfect couple –  dark handsome Jason and tiny blonde Jess.  Who just happen to have moved into the same street where she used to live with Tom.

And that is all I am going to say about the plot, because otherwise I might inadvertently spoil this great read.

Ms Hawkins tells the story from the point of view of 3 protagonists, a device which could get wearisome, but which she handles with consummate skill, taking us backwards and forwards in the narrative, and giving us tiny snippets of information that gradually build up to a clearer picture of the crime that is at the centre of this novel…at which point, the story takes another twist.  We see the same event from different perspectives, and a detail that we might have overlooked suddenly assumes importance.  There are subtle shifts in the story right until the very last page of this brilliantly constructed thriller.

We are told, by Rachel herself and by everyone she meets, that she is a drunk and that her memory is unreliable, and we know that she often blacks out through over-drinking, so, yes, she undoubtedly is an unreliable witness.  She candidly admits to us that she does indeed imagine things –  such as naming complete strangers Jason and Jess – almost encouraging us not to believe her, so when she suddenly remembers something, or has a partial flashback, we can hardly blame the police for mistrusting her.  At times, we are not even sure whether or not we should believe her, either.  We want to, but should we?

It is this clever play of imagination and half-remembered moments, of flashbacks of terrifying violence, of fears and doubts that make this such a gripping story.

What passes as the ultimate suburban lifestyle – the commute, the young couple drinking wine in their narrow garden that goes down to the train tracks –  all of this turns slowly into a narrative of hidden secrets and violence.

A fabulous read.

I hesitate to use a stock-in-trade expression like  “couldn’t put this book down” but actually, why not?  This book is unputdownable.

Enthusiastically recommended.

Autobiography of a Mad Nation by Sriram Karri

What an interesting book this is.

A criminal and political whodunnit that takes place in contemporary India, and at the very highest levels – we meet the President of India in the opening moments of the book, and yet leaves us puzzling over the nature of the crime, the motives for it and indeed who really carried it out, right up until the final pages of the book.

The novel opens with great panache and style, as the President shows his trusted confidant and the former head of the Intelligence Service, Dr. Vidyasagar, a plea for clemency he has received.  A mentally unstable young man, Iqbal, has been beheaded in Hyderabad and the author of the letter, Vikrant, is the convicted killer, who actually called the police to confess.  Now on death row, he writes to the President asking not for clemency but for justice.  He says he has proof as to who really killed Iqbal.  And he sends the proof to the President, whom he refers to as the People’s President.

This is perhaps the moment to say that one of the things I enjoyed about this book was trying to guess who was who, for the very nice, compassionate People’s President is never named per se, but there are enough clues for me to venture a suggestion – the still very popular former President A.P.J.Abdul Kalam.  Even if I’m wrong, while reading reading this novel, I imagined our fictional President to have the same genial face and kind, gentle nature of President Kalam.

I was sent this book for review by the publisher, Fingerprint!, but the problem with reviewing a whodunnit is that you really cannot reveal too much of the plot, for glaringly obvious reasons.

Suffice it to say that the first section of the book is seriously gripping, as Vidyasagar, racing against time (for the clock is ticking down both to the end of the President’s term of office and Vikrant’s execution) has to figure out whether or not Vikrant is a killer and if not, who was Iqbal’s murderer and why on earth would Vikrant have confessed to such a crime?

I am not going to spoil the plot for you, worry not.

The second part of the book consists of a long and very detailed flashback, and as you read it, you slowly begin to put together some of the pieces of this complex jigsaw puzzle of a book.

But not all of them, which means you start the third and final section sort-of-beginning-to-understand some things, and not understanding others at all.

Which is why this is a good read right until the very last paragraph.

Recommended.  Loved the first part, which is gripping and mystifying at the same time.

To buy the book right now, all you have to do is click on one of the links below.